Darkness into Light: A Reflective Summary on “The Way of Consent” [1]

…Ricoeur tells us from the very first page of Freedom and Nature—that a pure phenomenological description is not necessarily an “empirical” description, that is to say, “a picture of the forms of man’s actual voluntary activities”; a phenomenological description can be an “eidetic” description. In this sense, Ricoeur conforms to the Husserlian view of “eidetics” as a description that “can take as its springboard even an imperfect, truncated, distorted experience, or even a purely imaginary one.”[2]

It is a hard task to read Ricoeur, even just a few pages of him in an English translation (let alone all of his works in their original form), not because he speaks too broad and is hard to grasp, but of the way he thoroughly and seriously discusses themes after themes of an immense scope of subjects, leaves no stone unturned, dissecting every word, deciphering and articulating even those that are hidden beneath terms and behind symbols. Reading him leaves (inspires, I think would be more appropriate) a young philosopher wondering how huge could this iceberg of philosophy could be, and how long would it take him to penetrate through the massive ice of knowledge (fifty years perhaps as Plato surmised long ago), and realizing that what he had done so far was chip away only a few splinters of it (splinters? Or should the metaphor be of a forest?) Now this poor young philosopher, wanting to grasp the vast iceberg, is lost in the woods. May Ricoeur find him. Now this is really a “rupture of a blind harmony, the end of a dream.”[3]

The Reciprocal Negation: The Sorrow of Necessity and The Refusal of Freedom

In The Way of Consent, Ricoeur begins with the problem of dualism. “In the background of epistemological dualism there is the practical incompatibility of necessity and freedom. Freedom and necessity negate each other mutually. The negative moment is what must be clarified. This turn of events is not without importance because the moment of the no will always be retained in some way in the yes of consent.”[4] Thus he calls for an understanding of negation which he sees as essential for a consideration of freedom. And for us to understand concretely the philosophy of negation, he also proposes to guide us through a full consideration of “the doctrine of character, of the unconscious, and of life.”[5]

Upon entry into the forest, he cautions us that the journey to understanding negation is too complex and that it is dangerous to try to embrace them too rapidly. So, he suggests a “reciprocal entry”, that is, “following the reciprocity of the voluntary and the involuntary.”[6] Then he orients us that we need to take up “carefully all the signs which testify to the minor key of necessity on the three levels of personality, the unconscious, and life.”[7]

The emotions of joy and sorrow represent the peak of wonder. After the awakening of judgment before the new in wonder, after the amplification of that judgment in affective imagination, a union takes place between the object and myself.[8]

So the imaginary journey begins, first with the dark moments of necessity: three successive paths we have to take “in order to emphasize the double negation, suffered and willed.”[9]

The Sorrow of Finitude. I suffer from being one finite and partial perspective of the world and of values. I am condemned to be the “exception”: this and nothing else, this not that. Character makes me a “someone”. I suffer from being condemned to a choice which consecrates and intensifies my particularity and destroys all the possibilities through which I am in contact with the totality of human experience. Ah! If only I could grasp and embrace everything!—and how cruel it is to choose and exclude. That is how life moves: from amputation to amputation; and on the road from the possible to the actual lie only ruined hopes and atrophied powers. How much latent humanity I must reject in order to be someone! A fear grips me: here before me is all I will not do, all I cannot have, all I will not be. Character is not only a broken growth, but also an impossible metamorphosis. It is unbearable to be unique, inimitable, and condemned to resemble only oneself![10]

The Sorrow of Formlessness. The obscure is non-being: this is so evident that it is difficult to escape the lure of an imagery as simple as that of light and shadows. In terms of the unconscious we are shadows. We shall lose ourselves as in the depth of a forest (Descartes), or as on a vast, starless sea (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wandering upon the sea of reflection). We are not only sustained by our nature, but also, in another sense, limited by it; it is non-being which gives rise to the fear of the unconscious in which the formless receives form.

The unconscious in me is also the spontaneous power of unrecognized tendencies. This power is my impotence, this spontaneity is my passivity, that is, my non-activity. I am always the knight on the point of being unhorsed or the sorcerer’s apprentice faced with a revolt which he had not always called up first. The obscure life for which I am responsible lies between the judgment which depends on me and the external good which does not (Stoics). I am responsible only because I am two and because the second is concealed. I promise something only about which I do not control absolutely; I am my own sagacious elder and my own turbulent youngest son (Marcel). All self-possession is fringed with non-possession. I can be so dispossessed that I become what older language called “possessed”![11]

The Sorrow of Contingence. Life sums up all that I have not chosen and all that I cannot change. I am diverse, I am legion: and here my future as dust announces itself. This negativity is revealed to me by suffering. In suffering, consciousness becomes separated, focused, and sees itself negated. I am subject to pain as extended. Pain reveals the lack of being and the threat included in extension.

If the world exists, it means that all extended bodies function as a horizon of that extended body which I am, which confers on them its own negativity as extension: it is non-self, non-thought, non-willed. Space constitutes my misfortune: it is the exteriority which threatens intimacy, exposing and prostituting the secrecy of consciousness, excluding the here from the elsewhere. Growth includes the same dialectic: a different plurality—that of time—gives rise to it. Time, too, presents itself as negativity and as threat, and it is again affectivity which reveals it. The vague experience of aging reveals time as the “impotence of nature.” Aging is the obverse of growth, the shadow which accompanies it, the sorrow of process.

The sorrow of process is in the first place the sorrow of irreversibility. The future, domesticated by our rational and volitional anticipations, is also what I can neither speed up nor slow down. The past, in another way, negates me in my wish to retain the moment, negates me in my wish to erase it: for the past is what is no longer to be done: it is done. Time is not only the event which happens to us, but also the process which we are. Change constantly makes me other than myself. Anyone who commits himself confronts his own change and discovers the ruinous process. My own metamorphoses are enigmatic and discouraging. Now this change is equally dispersion. My life is naturally discontinuous.

My structure speaks to me of suffering, my growth of aging—of what form of nothingness does my birth speak? Of the nothingness of death! You are not your own, says contingence; you come from nothing, comments my birth. When I have been in turn attracted and repelled by this double thought of the undeniability of fact and its precariousness, I have entered anxiety: I am here, and that is not necessary. Contingence tells me only that I am not a necessary being whose contradiction would imply a self-contradiction; it allows me to conclude at most that I can not-be one day, that I can die—for what must begin can end—but not that I must die. Society continues as a system of vacant places, of hollow roles with provisional, interchangeable occupants. I do not even think of a corpse would incline me particularly to apply the common rule to myself: its presence is so stupefying that it suppresses all reflection. The death of the other, in the triple experience of the funeral, of the corpse, and of dying, illustrating the far too abstract law of mortality, leads me only imperfectly towards a personal conviction of my own mortality. Each man dies alone and each man is left alone on the shore. The anxiety of sensing myself unnecessary, a fortuitous and revocable fact, is aroused by the news of my future death. “You must die!”[12]

We are now in the middle of the forest, enveloped by the canopy of darkness, choked by the unrecognizable forces of nature, tripping over fallen colossal branches, entangled among disturbing twigs and thickets, and plunging, face flat on what could be damp earth with the smell of death. Amidst this our hazy blend of poetic, empiric, and eidetic immersion in the dark forest, in the infinitely foggy and cold night, we see Ricoeur, with rigor and vigor, unhorsed despite the deathly trail. He comes to us with the armor of freedom, and on his hand the banner of refusal. He hurls to us the salvific rope of absolute freedom. Now it is up to us to consent, to grasp and get a firm hold of it and allow ourselves to be dragged through the waking consciousness and into the light, or refuse and be left in the sorrows.

The Refusal of Freedom

 Freedom responds to the no of condition with the no of refusal. What follows are the three wishes of absolute freedom. In lieu of the limited character: totality. I repudiate the constrictions of character. I want to have the full stature of a man. Total transparency: I want to be free of shadows, of passions of the soul. Thirdly, I posit myself as existing—it is intolerable to find oneself existing and not-necessary.

This close connection between the refusal with which freedom arms itself and the self-positing of consciousness undoubtedly adequately also explains why a philosophy of triumphant consciousness contains the seed of a philosophy of despair. Freedom seeks its highest value precisely in refusal and in scorn. Suicide presents itself to it as one of the highest possibilities, it can appear the highest consecration of that act of rupture introduced by consciousness. Thus the no would no longer be a word but an act.

But suicide is not the only expression of refusal. There might be a courage to exist in the absurd and to face up to it, to persevere in the act of affirming—the no of freedom in face of the non-being of necessity. Here, Ricoeur tells us not to stop with refusal, but to go farther beyond it, to transcend it by way of consent.

From Refusal to Consent

             Consent is a choice concerning Transcendence. To consent does not in the least mean to give up if, in spite of appearances, the world is a possible stage of freedom. When I say, this is my place, I adopt it, I do not yield, I acquiesce. This is a question of a movement of deepening in which new insights appear. It is a reflection more than a critique (Marcel). It implies a leap from existence to transcendence (Jaspers).

It nonetheless remains true that though from the point of view of a “poetics” of the will the leap from the self to existence and the leap to the being of Transcendence are but one and the same philosophical act, from the point of view of a doctrine of subjectivity like the one which we are developing in this work the movement of deepening and reflection remains another leap, the leap towards the wholly other. We clearly reject the pretensions of an overly zealous apologetics which would pretend to derive God from nature or from subjectivity by a simple rational implication.[13]

At this point, Ricoeur shows how, by starting with such a philosophy of Transcendence, philosophy of subjectivity is completed as a doctrine of conciliation. In reading it thus from the lower to the higher we shall discover the response of subjectivity to an appeal or a grasp which surpasses it.[14]    He now presents two historical landmarks which “will help us surround, by default and by excess, the conciliation of freedom and necessity under the aegis on an invocation of Transcendence.”[15]

The Imperfect and  The Hyperbolic Consent

Stoicism, on the one hand, represents the pole of detachment and scorn, Orphism, on the other, the loss of the self in necessity.

“Of things, some are in our power, others are not.”[16] Stoic consent seems to destroy itself because it is not reconciliation but rather detachment. “The whole Stoic strategy is tied to two corollaries: reduction of the body to ‘already a corpse’ and of affection to opinion; there are no ‘passions of the soul’ in the fact of the body, there are only actions of the soul: the body is inert, the soul impenetrable.”[17] The Stoic escapes the shriveling of his scorning effort because he knows himself to be a part of the Whole.”[18] “I am not the center of being, I myself am only one being among beings. The whole which includes me is the parabola of being which I am not. I come from all to myself as from Transcendence to existence.”[19] “I love my misery engulfed in the grandeur of the world which Marcus Aurelius called the ‘health of the universe.’”[20] “Contemplation, admiration are the detour of consent.”[21] “The ultimate limit of Stoicism is remaining on the threshold of the poetry of adoration.”[22]

“The poetry of adoration is the soul of Orphism.”[23] In the Orphic incantation (or intoxication), the universe travails under the hard law of “Die and become.” The goodness of the world is the “Die and become,” it is metamorphosis. Nature is majestic in its sheer existence. All non-willed existence is neither a catastrophe nor a prison, but an initial generosity and an initial victory.[24]

For Ricoeur, Orphism remains a limit which he neither can nor dare reach. “It is the hyperbolic consent which loses me in necessity just as Stoicism was the imperfect consent which exiled me from the whole which it nonetheless strove to admire.”[25] Ricoeur suggests an incidence in the relations of admiration to consent. “Admiration (or contemplation) removes me from the center and places me back among the ciphers. Consent gives me to myself and reminds me that no one can absolve me from the act of yes. Admiration and consent are circular: “Consent by itself remains on an ethical and prosaic level; admiration is the cutting edge of the soul, lyric and poetic.”[26] “Admiration becomes a help because it is beyond willing; it is the incantation of poetry which delivers me from myself and purifies me.”[27]

For any being which is not a subject metamorphosis remains a transformation into something other than itself: mortality is transcended in sexuality, the corpse in the flowers of the field. The transformation is really an alienation. For me, to assume my character, my unconscious, and my purposiveness with their being and non-being is to transform them into myself. The transformation is not an alienation but an interiorization. No longer “Become all things!” but rather “Become what you are.”[28]

Ricoeur is obliged to raise the “Die and become” to the level of spiritual transcendence where limitations are transformed into receptivity and patience, no longer perceiving, but willing. Contemplation paves the way to consent by making the tense power of refusal gentle and tender, but it does not take its place: to say yes remains my act.

Yes to my character, whose constriction I can change into depth, consenting to compensate its invincible particularity by friendship. Yes to the unconscious, which remains the indefinite possibility of motivating my freedom. Yes to my life, which I have not chosen but which is the condition which makes all choice possible.

Thus I can remain the only one to say no while all nature in its way says yes, and exile myself for infinity in refusal. But my clarity must be limitless. He who refuses his foundation refuses the absolute involuntary which is also a shadow of the relative involuntary of motives and capacities. He who refuses his motives and capacities annuls himself as act. The no, like the yes, can only be total.[29]

Consent and Hope

If there is a narrow path between exile and confusion, it is because consent to limitations is an act which is never complete.

Who can say yes to the end, without reservations? Suffering and evil, respected in their own shocking mystery, protected against degradation into a problem, lie in our way as the impossibility of saying an unreserved yes to character, the unconscious, and life and of transforming the sorrow of the finite, the indefinite, and of contingence perfectly into joy. Perhaps no one can follow consent to the end. Evil is the scandal which always separates consent from inhuman necessity.[30]

For Ricoeur, we need to understand that the way of consent does not lead only through admiration of marvelous nature focused in the absolute involuntary, but through hope which awaits something else. For us who have allowed ourselves to be brought deep into the forest of negation with the ardent hope of overcoming it are now ushered into the light. Once again we see the same brightness of day, as though seeing it again for the first time, if nature allows such a phenomenon. Consciousness, for us, thanks to Ricoeur, now has a deeper meaning.

And though a fleeting distance always separates freedom from necessity, at least hope wills to convert all hostility into a fraternal tension within a unity of creation.[31]


Ivan Deligero

July 13, 2011

[1] Freedom and Nature, pp. 444-486.

[2] Prof. Dr. Leovino Ma. Garcia (1997) quoting Paul Ricoeur in “The Meaning of Being Human in Ricoeur’s Philosophy of the Will” in Part Two of a series of monographs which appeared in Budhi (published 1997), p. 87. Also reprinted in his collection of monologues on Ricoeur, Paul Ricoeur: Philosopher of Responsibility and Hope (2011).

[3] FN, p.444.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] FN, p.445.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Prof. Dr. Leovino Ma. Garcia (1997), “The Meaning of Being Human in Ricoeur’s Philosophy of the Will” in Part Two of a series of monographs which appeared in Budhi (published 1997), p. 134.

[9] FN, p. 447.

[10] Cf. FN, p. 447-448.

[11] Cf. FN, pp. 449-450.

[12] Cf. FN, pp. 450-462.

[13] FN, p. 468.

[14] FN, pp. 468-469.

[15] FN, p. 469.

[16] FN, p. 469. Ricoeur quotes from Epictetus, “Manual,” in Moral Discourses, trans. Elizabeth Carter (New York, 1910, 1950).

[17] FN, p. 469. Ricoeur quotes Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, quoting Epictetus.

[18] FN, p. 472.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] FN, p. 473.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Cf. FN, pp473-476.

[25] FN, p. 476.

[26] FN, p. 477.

[27] Ibid.

[28] FN, p. 479.

[29] Ibid.

[30] FN, pp. 479-480.

[31] FN, p. 481.

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